Creating the conditions for design to flourish

Using design and deploying its methods, methodologies and mind-set has proven valuable for industry. However, UK industry is not yet harnessing the full potential of design. The UK’s strong design capabilities — world leading design talent and a strong creative sector — are strengths to be capitalised on. More needs to be done to help industry unlock its creative potential if the UK is to make the most of the opportunities presented by emerging technology.

Increasing the use of design: Opportunities from the design ladder

The term “design” encompasses an array of methods and methodologies. These range from user centred design, to graphic design, to design engineering. It also encompasses a mind-set which is focused on identifying and solving problems, and turning ideas into practical action.

The design ladder is an attempt to describe the different ways in which these can be applied within business, from design applied at the end of a process to ‘polish’ the final output, through to applications where design processes are embedded in the strategic heart of the company, from where they help guide business direction and purpose.

The design ladder shows the many manifestations of design and in doing so, demonstrates that there are opportunities for a business to develop its use of design no matter where it currently sits.

At this point it is important to note two things about the design ladder. Firstly, whilst it describes stages, it is not the case that moving between them must happen in a linear, step-by-step fashion. It is possible for a business to ‘leapfrog’ and move up several rungs at a time. Secondly, it should not be assumed that all businesses should be striving to move quickly to the highest rung of the ladder, regardless of needs or ambitions. Rather the model provides a light touch framework to enable businesses to consider their own use of design within the context of its potential different applications. Doing this allows potential opportunities for development to be identified.

Ultimately the choice of how and when to act will vary from business to business. It may be that a company decides, on reflection, that they are in the right place for now. Or perhaps a small step, in say trialling design processes to gain user insights, is all that is currently requited or feasible. Another firm, by contrast, may feel that their business and market demands them to strive for more strategic uses of design. For them incremental change may not be what is required.

This point about incremental change versus transformative change is a subtle yet important one, and both of these approaches need to be supported. It is important to be pragmatic and recognise, on the one hand, that not all businesses can or need to strive to be on the highest rungs of the ladder, and to appreciate, on the other, that gains from efficiency are sometimes not sufficient. In practice, this means that opportunities need to be provided for all businesses, wherever they sit, to be able to move up. Even if incremental change takes place, collectively across many firms this could yield significant results from industry as a whole. However, it is also important that firms with the desire and capabilities to be moving into the highest rungs of the ladder are supported to do this. This stage of the ladder, where design is embedded within the company, is where its impacts can be transformative. This transformative or visionary nature is particularly important for addressing new or emerging challenges. Hugo Spowers, Founder of Riversimple, a UK-based hydrogen fuel cell car company, has noted that incremental change and optimising the component parts often seems like the ‘right’ thing to do when you are working within a complex and mature system, but does not usually lead to transformative step-change.

Transformative change offers the opportunity for a company to define and lead a sector, consider Uber or Apple’s ability to set market direction. This quality is needed for addressing the Industrial Strategy’s Grand Challenges. These areas are emerging and have been identified as sources of opportunity for growth within industry. They will be capitalised on by companies which possess a vision for the future and the capacity to make it a reality. Sam Turner from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, sees, for example, that big wins will be available to those who can successfully combine data-driven approaches with human-centred approaches. The mind-sets and processes within design offer this potential.

Overcoming the barriers to deploying design

There are barriers to the uptake of design by industry. Interviews for this paper described the challenge that businesses can have in understanding exactly what it is that design will offer them, the difficulty in accessing the skills needed, and a perceived risk in investing in design.

These echo the findings of the 2005 Cox Review of creativity in business. It identified five key obstacles preventing SME’s from making greater use of the UK’s creative talents: lack of awareness and experience; lack of belief in the value of, or confidence in, the outcome; not knowing where to turn for specialised help; limited ambition or appetite for risk; too many other pressures on the business.

More than a decade later these same challenges still resonate with the industry as being barriers to the greater take up of design. They are significant challenges and, as the Cox Review points out, are much to do with attitude, understanding and behaviour — all of which are complex to change. However, much has happened in the intervening decade and the benefits of design are arguably more widely sought and recognised. With the launch of the Industrial Strategy now is an important time to take action on accelerating the use of design by industry.

Insights from industry have helped to identify conditions required for achieving this, and overcoming the barriers faced. These fall broadly into conditions required in three domains: people, culture and networks.

People: individuals and teams with diverse skill sets can help design to flourish

Deploying the methods and methodologies of design requires that broad skill-sets be held by both individuals and teams. Skills drawn on are those which can be described as ‘hard’ or ‘technical’ skills, and those referred to as ‘softer’ capabilities. For example, technical engineering knowledge is required to create viable products. But equally important to that outcome are skills, such as empathy, which help to understand the consumer needs, or those which enable sections of a business to work together, like good communication or problem solving skills.

The UK needs to be cultivating this broad range of skills in order to deal with the demands of tomorrow’s workplace. This goes beyond design-specific education into general education, and into the workplace. An artificial division between creative and non-creative sectors and skills still exists in much of the formal education system and is seen as a challenge to cultivating the skills needed for design to flourish across industry.

As well as having these skillsets available businesses need to understand where and how to deploy them to achieve their desired outcomes. The Design Ladder highlights some of the considerations here. At the lower stages of the ladder, where design is starting to be used, it is possible to access its skills and processes from outside of the business. For example, a company will commission the creation of an advertising campaign, or might buy in a discrete piece of consumer insight. However, the application and use of design at the higher rungs of the ladder requires that design skills are more fully integrated into the organisation. Design is successfully deployed at the strategic level when the skills which power it are within the business. As businesses move up the ladder then, they need to invest more in growing design capacity internally.

As well as encouraging design skills it is important to encourage a broader diversity of experience and perspective within industry. Diversity is valued by design-led thinkers and organisations. Different opinions and ways of thinking are valuable for helping envisage new scenarios, or to identify and solve problems. Caroline Simcock explained that diversity is important to design because having multiple viewpoints can help identify the real challenge at the heart of an issue, and ensure that alternative avenues are not missed. She added that the lack of women in industry is a significant missed opportunity for the sector. Gender is one of a range of aspects including age and ethnicity, which are important markers for diversity. Encouraging diversity continue to be encouraged within industry.

Culture: design flourishes in, and helps create, cultures with collaborative ways of working

As much as diversity is important, so too is creating a culture of collaboration where these different skills and experiences can meet and work effectively together. In diverse teams design processes can act as the glue which brings disparate ideas together and helps to translate them into actions and solutions. Neal Stone, Founder and Director, leapSTONE explained that “at the heart of design thinking is the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere, and could be anything. When that attitude truly permeates an organisation’s culture, design is able to create real and meaningful impact”.

This collaboration extends to the relationship between industry and the design or creative sectors. In stepping up to the challenge of the Industrial Strategy there is still uncertainty about the exact mechanisms by which design creates its impact. As long as this remains, some will continue to see the use of design as alchemy. This, understandably, creates a barrier to articulating its value. To help overcome this it is important that designers speak plainly about the processes and impact of their work. For some in industry the perceived ‘language of design’ can be confusing, but businesses should neither be put off by language nor feel afraid to challenge what they don’t understand. Designers should make sure language is fit for business purposes.

It is important to recognise that when a business at the higher stages of the ladder uses design, it is embedded within the culture and practices of that organisation. Industrial designer Laurence Kemball-Cook, now CEO of UK energy company Pavegen, proudly refers to his organisation as a design led business. The off-grid energy start up has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2009 and Kemball-Cook has deployed design to drive innovation and help his business scale and reach new markets. Pavegen provides a case study of how a design led business can win investment in agile ways — having completed its first successful investment round in May 2015 using the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, accumulating over 1,500 investors and reaching the £2m mark in under two weeks. With a strong network of investors in place Pavegen now boasts an Advisory Board, led by former Apple Exec Jeff Martin and former Interface FLOR President Greg Colando — making the UK company a global player in design.

Moving boldly into this space involves confidence and an appetite for change. Embedding design requires shifting structures, processes, and sometimes even physical spaces to enable different working practices. As an organisation moves further up the design ladder applying design should become less and less about a discreet project or team, and more about a shift in culture across the business. IBM, for example, use three pillars: people, places and processes, to describe the way in which design is manifested within the organisation. To take the ‘places’ aspect of this, a number of other organisations also described the importance of having physical places where teams interact. And the importance of responsibility for design residing in the senior management of an organisation. In this way the impact from design can be maximised.

The importance of design being embedded in culture extends beyond individual businesses. If its opportunities are to be truly harnessed in UK industry then the wider industrial sector, its institutions and networks should also look to embrace design and design processes.

Networks: strong and accessible networks can inspire and inform

Having networks through which businesses can share and be inspired by design’s capabilities is an important condition to be cultivated. Industrial businesses draw inspiration and information from the actions of their peers. These relationships and networks can drive businesses to consider their use of design. Understanding how an organisation similar theirs has introduced design is likely to be more fruitful for a firm than looking to companies held up as global design leaders, such as Apple or Dyson, and more likely to encourage them to try ideas themselves. This is especially true for SMEs, who make up a large proportion of UK industry and are very diverse in size and governance and location; local networks are very important in this respect.

While there is particular value in drawing inspiration from similar businesses, there is also value for industry in learning from different sectors — just as diversity of perspective is important in the design process. For design to flourish in industry, networks and relationships between sectors should also be encouraged and facilitated.


The following practical recommendations seek to generate a stronger use of design by industry. Importantly, the recommendations demonstrate that it is not only industry which needs to take action in order for this to happen. Rather, multiple stakeholders play a role in achieving this ambition and commitments are required from policy makers, educators and design practitioners, as well as from industrial businesses themselves.

It is hoped that the recommendations will stimulate debate amongst industry and wider stakeholders.

1. Embed design support into existing industry institutions and networks, to help businesses access wherever they sit on the ‘design ladder’

A business’s requirements for design support will turn on several variables: where on the design ladder they currently sit; how they aspire to use design; and how ready their organisation is for implementing changes and ‘moving up the ladder’.

For example, a business which uses relatively little design may need help to identify what skills they need to access and where to find them. This might be working with an external agency on gaining user insight for a new product range. On the other hand, a business with a more established use of design may need to access support to help embed design processes across their organisation, and build in-house design skills. These requirements are different, as are the implications for investment from the organisation. Businesses should to be able to access support for these different kinds of needs. This may include helping them to diagnose their current situation and the right course of action.

Institutions and structures that exist to support industry should ensure that design is part of their offering in order to meet this wide range of business needs. One example of this is Innovate UK’s network partner, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), which provides innovation networking for other funders in line with its mission to drive UK growth.

Another example of this is the Catapult network and the associated Catapult Centres, also established by Innovate UK. These are a series of physical centres where the UK’s businesses, scientists and engineers work together to transform high-potential ideas into new products and services. As core hubs of expertise, with strong networks of organisations, these centres could act as stronger proponents of design within their sectors.

The Catapult Centres have a great track record in helping organisations of all sizes to innovate and some have already established a design capability. That said much more could be done to encourage the use of excellent design by UK companies, and to help equip them to use excellent design more effectively. Indeed, given the importance of SME’s to the economy, and the fact that they tend to have fewer resources, it is essential that SME businesses are able to access the support offered by the Catapult network and other similar networks.

2. Ensure that design support is accessible at a local level

The Industrial Strategy identifies ‘place’ as being key to unlocking full productivity potential in the UK. This geographical dimension is also important for increasing the use of design. Local connections and networks are important sources of support and inspiration for industry and businesses should be able to be inspired about design’s value by others in their networks and be able to access design support locally.

The Design Economy Report points out that the top six local authorities with the most significant concentrations of design activity in Great Britain are in London, encouragingly there also clusters of high quality design across the country including, for example, Dundee which is a UNESCO City of Design and home to the new V&A design museum. These clusters need to be identified and nurtured in order for them to inspire and support their local industry.

The Industrial Strategy advocates for the development of the local industrial strategies. These strategies should outline how the use of design can be supported locally. As part of this, a design capabilities audit should be undertaken to assess current skillset, needs and potential. To ensure this support is appropriate and effective, Government should encourage local bodies to consider how to encourage the better use of design as part of their forward strategies.

3. Share relevant research and insights between sectors

As well as learning from each other, and from sector specific networks, businesses can also look to other sectors for inspiration and insights about deploying design processes. They should actively investigate opportunities to do this, for example by learning from firms who encourage diverse skill sets amongst their staff to enhance organisational creativity. Businesses could draw in new skills through collaborations with other sectors, or through partnerships with local universities.

An exciting opportunity for cross-sector learning this is presented by the merging of the Research Councils and Innovate UK, together with newly formed Research England, into one new organisation — UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

This formation offers the enhanced opportunity to bring together different sectors through funding streams and networks. UKRI has the opportunity to use co-design frameworks which will ensure that cross sector collaborations are effective and fruitful bringing together different research communities. Here design can act as the glue and the translator, helping ideas move into practical application.

UKRI could also investigate opportunities for leveraging ‘design relevant’ skills found in other sectors and connect them with industry. For example, many social science disciplines have skills useful for understanding human behaviour and needs which can be useful in the design process.

4. Apply design thinking to solving the Grand Challenges

Design thinking should be central to the implementation of the Industrial Strategy, at both local and national levels. For the direction of the Grand Challenges it is particularly important. These are broad and complex areas, with emerging technologies adding to the intricacy. Within this domain design is critical for drawing out the real problems in need of addressing. Doing this well will elicit high quality innovations developed in response to genuine environmental, social and economic opportunities. It will prevent the development of ‘solutions looking for a problem’ which fail to truly address needs. This application of design thinking should take place at all levels as the Grand Challenges are explored, from government policy development, through the setting of challenges and funds from organisations like UKRI, through to individual businesses product development and strategies.

One avenue for this is to ensure that where appropriate, the Industrial Strategy Challenge funds offer design support and encourage entrants to evidence strong use of design thinking in their applications and investigations.

5. Ensure that design is discussed in an open and accessible way

Despite the available research demonstrating the value of design to industry, there is still uncertainty about the mechanisms for how design exerts this power. As long as this remains the case, some will continue to see the use of design as alchemy, and this, understandably, presents a barrier to convincing those within businesses to invest in it. Businesses need help understanding the specific benefits for them. The language used to discuss design can be unclear, and as design’s broad portfolio of activities and processes can render it challenging to understand.

To help do this design practitioners should make sure the language they use is fit for purpose and clearly explains their value proposition to industry. Approaches which break down the use of design, such as the design ladder, and show its different aspects are likely to be more effective than those which present design as an amorphous whole.

6. Reduce perceived risk in investing in design

Investing in design requires the conviction and confidence that these investments will pay back. There are a numbers of ways in which businesses can be supported to take this step by making it easier for them to access design.

New business models in which designers and design firms work differently with industry are one route to explore. For example, there could be opportunities for designers to invest financially in partnerships or use royalty models. Models like this could help the design sector and industry work more in partnership and share risk.

Support from government is, of course, important for enabling exploratory partnerships and activities. One area worthy of further investigation is the impact of R&D tax credits on the take up of design, to ensure that a spectrum of design activities are incentivised through this scheme.

It is worth noting that matched grant funding for design is a key mechanism by which perceived risk in design can be reduced and a way to encourage firms to ‘have a go’ at deploying design across their business. Through Innovate UK’s ‘Design Foundations’ competition and the inclusion of design activity in the scope of a range of other grant competitions, new types of innovation are emerging and it would be wise to capitalise on this momentum.

The investment community also has a key role to play in incentivising businesses towards using design. Investors should demand to see strong design capabilities from businesses and support them to develop their capacity in this area.

7. Invest in broad design education that brings together design and business

The Industrial Strategy clearly recognises the need to for the UK to invest in creating a skilled workforce. Design capabilities should be considered part of this and warrant serious investment. Alongside the technical skills which the UK needs to develop, ‘softer’ skills like empathy and problem solving need also to be cultivated. These design skills are necessary for bridging disciplines, understanding and shaping customer needs, and moving from ideas into successful commercial activity. The UK government should commit to greater investment in design education as part of the delivery of the Industrial Strategy.

School and university education are, of course, important but training needs also to be available to those already in the workplace. The government recognises this in the Industrial Strategy through its plans for a National Retraining Scheme. As technology develops and jobs are impacted, the UK will increasingly need its workforce to be able to work across disciplines and synthesise large amounts of information; design skills help to do this and should be taught as part of this scheme.

Design students need also to have stronger business knowledge in order for them to be able to work more effectively with industry. Understanding business and business needs should have greater weight within design education and educational institutions should develop greater business skills and commercial acumen in emerging designers. To this end, it is increasingly important that education not only seeks to encourage a broader range of skills in designers but that those designers themselves are a diverse and broad range of people; as has been stated in design education manifestos time and again, diversity is an imperative for business and particularly design in the future.


Society and technology are changing at rapid pace and these changes present countless opportunities as well as challenges to UK industry. These trends have, and will continue to bring about, significant change and UK businesses must be ready and equipped to make the most of the potential these changes carry. It is how UK industry responds to these changes will shape its future trajectory and success.

The UK is well-placed to drive growth and innovation in a range of domains, particularly those outlined in the Government’s Industrial Strategy, but there is work to be done to stay ahead and capitalise on these changes. Design has a critical role to play in helping UK businesses to do this successfully. To this end, industry is challenged to keep pace with a changing global market and to understand how design can be a means to successfully engage with customers and employees in a way that ensures agility, flexibility and innovation. Much evidence exists already confirming the importance of design for industry and innovation, but the depth and breadth of design use across sectors could be stronger. This can only be done through a multi-stakeholder approach that understands how to develop and nurture culture, people and networks for maximum benefit.

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